Mealtime, Loneliness, and Thoughts to Chew On

by Joy Loverde

Picturing myself on any given evening, sitting at a restaurant table alone surrounded by diners who are engrossed with each other and their meals instantly surfaces deep sadness and thoughts of being forgotten. On the other hand I have friends who love to eat alone. Go to movies alone. Do almost everything alone. That’s not me, and I blame my Italian upbringing for not being prepared to handle situations of this nature.

Every night of the week throughout my childhood, my Mom and five siblings participated in a highly social event -- a family sit-down dinner. Conversations among the six of us were lively, interactive, and challenging (being the middle child, it was often difficult to get a word in edgewise). After-dinner rituals were no less engaging; clearing the table and washing the dishes was fun and entertaining, and usually included harmonizing to popular songs. “You are my sunshine,” anyone?

When I left home as a young adult to pursue life on my own, eating breakfast and lunch alone rarely stirred emotions of loneliness. Like everyone else, I was busy and pressed for time. Besides, I typically ate on the “fly,” multi-tasking along the way. Eating dinner alone, however, was an entirely different animal, and I continuously fought emotional demons of loss.

It’s no wonder that Helen Dennis’ recent article titled, Successful aging: Eating alone doesn’t have to be lonely struck a chord with me. The issue of eating alone affects millions of Americans. According to the National Institute on Aging an estimated 19 percent of men and 37 percent of women over 65 live alone.

Ms. Dennis writes that while living alone does not necessarily equate to loneliness, although in some cases, loneliness is an issue. “For widows, the feeling of loneliness may become heightened during meal time particularly when sitting across the table from an empty chair, once occupied by a loved one. It’s no surprise that the desire to prepare a meal for just one person is not fun – with no one to speak with about the events of the day, front-page stories, plans, children, the ballgame or the meal you just prepared.”

Additionally, living alone may also be a barrier to healthy eating. After a long day at work, if you have ever grabbed a bag of popcorn and a glass of wine, and plopped down in front of the computer for a round of binge watching on Netflix, you know what I’m talking about.

So back to the topic at hand – eating diner alone. If this subject resonates with you as much as it does me, I would like you to know that I have integrated myriad lifestyle strategies that have helped me to overcome some of my stresses about solo dining – at home and beyond. I share them with you now:

Shifting gears. While I used to believe that dining alone in a restaurant was odd, I don’t any more. Everywhere I look, people are dining alone. This fact raised my comfort level that I was not being stared at or putting my solitude on display. Also knowing that more and more people are becoming single by way of widowhood and divorce, solo dining is going to escalate for a long time.

Guess who’s coming to dinner? Take the initiative to share home-cooked meals. Friends, co-workers, neighbors, grandchildren, and people you know well who work in the stores where you shop – you are literally surrounded by others who are in the same situation as you.

Pot luck. Start a tradition one night a week where everyone rotates having dinner at someone’s house. Share responsibilities — one prepares the entrée, the other dessert.

Solo-friendly eateries. Dine in places that make it easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger (if that is what you desire) or allow you to eat alone without occupying a table for two. Bench-like seating and eating at the bar are a few ways to accomplish this goal.

Tech-friendly. Technology has changed the experience for solo diners. Engaging in reading a book, talking on the phone or whatever else can be accomplished on a device is not acceptable behavior in all restaurants. Be aware of differing dining policies.

Eat as you learn. Consider taking a cooking class one night a week. Invite fellow students and friends to your house to show off your new skills as a chef.

Carry out. Who says you have to eat your home-cooked meal at home? Prepare your food at home and go on a picnic – the beach, park bench, outdoor concerts, seating in front of your favorite fountain or monument.

bench and fountainPlay with your food. From food courts at the shopping mall to zoos, museums, and baseball games – you can enjoy a meal surrounded by a variety of fun and entertaining activities.

Switch it up. Eating your main meal during the day (around lunch time) frees you up to be occupied with an activity other than eating when dinner time rolls around.

Volunteer. Often times, when you volunteer to serve meals at the local homeless shelter you are also invited to share the meal with fellow volunteers.

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